Ad libbing: Leave this to the professionals

Sometimes ad libbing works—you know, getting carried away in the moment and going off script—and sometimes it leads you seriously astray. So this post carries a warning label:

Ad libbing is for pros only. Seriously.

Bill Clinton made a bad debut on the national stage, delivering a long and rambling, universally panned speech for the Democrats’ 1988 presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Remember him? Exactly.

Clinton has given some absolutely forgettable speeches. He’s also given one of the best speeches I’ve heard in the last 10 years. How am I sure it was so good? Because four years after he gave it, I can still remember the feeling I had listening to it. It was like watching my Mets on their way to clinching the pennant: Even before he’d finished speaking, I knew it was going to get President Obama re-elected. It was a winner.

And much of it was unscripted. According to Dashiell Bennett (no relation) writing in The Atlantic, “[A]s an exasperated TelePrompTer operator found out,” the four pages of text given to the media “was really just a guideline to what Clinton actually wanted to say during his 49-minute address.”

As the Washington Post described  it,

After listening to him march through endless policy details, the crowd in Charlotte seemed to tire, and as he continued well past 11 p.m., the TV audience certainly may have drifted off. The speech went on and on and on, likely sending all but the fawning media off to bed. Clinton, let it never be said, is a disciplined speaker.

Editing or ad libbing?

The folks in charge of the convention tried to avert the never-ending speech by editing President Clinton’s prepared remarks. Was he ad libbing or did he just edit the deletions right back in, from his prodigious memory? In either case, the speech planned for 30 minutes (and that’s already 10 minutes too long for most audiences, in my opinion) grew nearly 60% longer.

Seriously, do not try this at home—or at your next speaking gig. Conference organizers will be rightly miffed if you try. Very few people are as eloquent—or as irreplaceable—as Bill Clinton, and chances are you are not one of them. So write a tight speech and stick to the script and the time frame you’ve been given. You’ll deliver it better, too, if you’re not worried about ad libbing your way through.

This analysis from The Atlantic shows exactly how Clinton’s written and spoken texts differed. And there’s a lot we can learn from it.

Like this passage, which exemplifies the thing I loved most about the speech as I watched it. He explained not just what would happen, but why it would have a positive impact on the American people:

Bill Clinton's additions and deletions in 2012 Convention speech

The “Explainer-in-Chief” added specifics (in green) and deleted a redundant reference, which is stronger placed at the end of the sentence anyway.

Below, he turns a passive verb active—no zombies here!—and added language that brings the issue to life more vividly.

Bill Clinton turns passive verbs active and adds detail

But here’s where the green additions really start flowing.

Ad libbing or editing? Either way the details make the speech come alive

Details! Yes, details take time—but without them, how flat would this passage be? Look again at what he was supposed to say:

When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better. After all, nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. All of us are destined to live our lives between these two extremes.

It’s fine as far as it goes, but does it tell you anything about why cooperation works? About what cooperative government can produce? About the benefits to regular people when government works cooperatively? No, no, and no.

How did it play?

Mallary Jean Tenore, who at the time was managing editor of, summed up the reaction this way:

While called it “a fact-checker’s nightmare” and others criticized it for being too long, there’s something about Clinton’s speech that made it stand out: good writing.

(I added the emphasis.) See her analysis of the “10 rhetorical strategies” that make the speech work. I’d talk about them myself, but this is fast becoming the blog equivalent of a Bill Clinton speech.

Three things for you to remember here:

  1. People who seem to be ad libbing may not be. So don’t try it yourself!
  2. Interpolate a word or two if you must, but don’t add whole paragraphs on the spur of the moment.
  3. Respect the conference organizer’s time limits. Unless you’re a) Bill Clinton or b) prepared to not be asked back.
  • politics
  • speeches